Masculinity so Fragile: The Wonder Woman Edition

Dear Joel,

Oh, the hours I spent playing Wonder Woman as a child! She was the ideal superhero–yes, because she was a woman (and a dark haired one at that, which made her the un-Barbie to me–and my joy in discovering her only highlights the pain that children of color often feel when they face another summer with no heroes of color on the screen). But she was also accessible to me: you could step into the role with nearly no gear. Unlike billionaire Bruce Wayne, who relied on a manor full of gadgets to get the job done, Wonder Woman required only three things: Bracelets of Submission (which could be crafted from the blue extra-wide rubber bands that held together broccoli bought at the grocery store), the Lasso of Truth (which we made from any old rope we could find), and an Invisible Plane (which was the easiest of all to craft!). Clearly, DC wasn’t thinking about merchandizing to children when Wonder Woman came to be.

But that she was a woman meant a lot, too. I’d like to say that we simply didn’t see too many women as heroes “back when I was a kid,” but that’s still pretty much the case (though I think there are significant exceptions, including Mulan, Brave, and Moana). We tend to classify movies by and about men as movies (unless they are about war or whatever The Revenant was about) and movies by and about women as women’s movies, as if men’s gendered experiences don’t shape how they view films but movies for women are only accessible to those who have been through the gendered experiences of women.

And writers know this. It’s why Harry Potter is about a boy and his friends Hermione and Ron–a group that is two-thirds boys. When girls take the lead role or outnumber boys, boys start to see the book (or the film) as for girls. And when a book about a boy is written by a woman, her publisher will ask her to use her initials or a pen name to hide her gender. Ramona Quimby and Pippi Longstocking are the literary exceptions in that they are read by boys (or are read to boys), too, but Ramona and Pippi are also girls who are quite explicit about embracing danger, fun, and silliness–and rejecting dresses, obedience, and good manners.  Until Dora the Explorer, we didn’t have a girl character with the kind of multi-media power (a TV show, video games, books, a stage show) that was cultivated for boy characters. Even Dora, though, wasn’t bringing in the boy viewers and so she got a male counterpart: her cousin Diego.

 

Above, left to right: Pippi Longstocking challenges Adolf, the strongman, at the circus, Ramona Quimby tears around on her tricycle, and Harry Potter and his pals Hermione and Ron pose for a picture

So, while it’s so important for women to see women as heroes on the screen, the major obstacle to them getting there is the idea that men won’t watch them. Yet the fact that audiences for things like monster truck rallies and pro wrestling events and Mel Gibson films are mostly men doesn’t prevent them from being produced–nor does the fact that some films (50 Shades of Grey, all those lovely Jane Austen adaptations) were watched primarily by women mean that such films shouldn’t be produced. Twilight made a boatload of money but was marketed mostly to women and girls.

If we already produce movies with a gendered market in mind, why the hesitation to produce more movies with women in the heroic roles? As the success of Wonder Woman among women viewers shows, women are available and ready to watch.

I’m not sure, then, that the problem is so much with films with strong women characters as much as it is with men who can’t imagine a woman saving them. Films like 50 Shades of Grey and Twilight might be movies for women, but they don’t threaten men. Wonder Woman is going to save men. She might even physically save them. (As happens in real life, too–women work as fire fighters and on avalanche rescue teams and as hostage negotiators and they often actually physically save the lives of men, sometimes even by picking them up and carrying them to safety.)

So, yes, as you point out, if you are a white man mocking women crying at Wonder Woman, don’t; it’s easy but ugly to “sneer at people taking seriously something you don’t have to take seriously because it will never be a problem getting a superhero movie made about people who look like you.”

But I’m also betting that part of white men’s discomfort with Wonder Woman is that she’s saving people who do look like them.

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Above, a drawing from a Wonder Woman comic. Wonder Woman rescues a man from a fire by carrying him on her shoulder. How much you wanna bet he tried to insist that he could handle it on his own?

Rebecca

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PS. I have a lot more to say about Wonder Woman, including Gal Gadot’s support for assaults on Palestinian civilians, a real-life message that seems at odds with the film’s apparent criticisms of nationalism. I’m also not a huge Chris fan (Pine, Pratt, Hemsworth, Evans) as they seem to me to be the living embodiment(s) of the idea that in order for people of color and women to get ahead, undeserving white men are going to need to step aside. So let me think about it more. In the meantime, I’ll spend my free time this weekend re-reading Herland

126590The cover of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, serialized in 1915 and not published in book form until 1979.

White Dudes and Wonder Woman

Dear Rebecca:

Over the last year, some of my friends have offered up this jokey-not so jokey prayer in public: “Lord, give me the confidence of a mediocre white man.”

It came to mind today as I watched white dudes react to the runaway success of the new “Wonder Woman” movie. Frankly, it’s been an awkward grapple.

Here’s Rich Lowry at National Review, wondering why we can’t just enjoy a good superhero flick without getting caught up in feminist politics.

The critics have swooned, and some of them have literally cried over the movie. This is a bit much. The advancement of women in this country, or even just in Hollywood, didn’t depend on the production of a better female superhero vehicle than, say, Elektra (Rotten Tomato rating: 10 percent). Nor is it unusual anymore to see women beat up villains on screen. This hasn’t stopped people from losing their minds — a new American core competency — over Wonder Woman.

More complicatedly, David Edelstein at New York found himself, er, revising and extending his previous remarks giving the movie a mediocre review. After answering charges he’d spent too much time contemplating his looks, he answered the broader charge that he simply didn’t take the movie seriously enough:

I underestimated how much a superheroine at the center of a woman-directed film would mean to many people, and descriptions I considered lively and complimentary would come across as demeaning. Moreover, if Wonder Woman will empower women at this moment in history — in which reproductive rights are imperiled, and an admitted groper is working to undo decades of gains for women — then some of the criticisms of my review are just. I reserve the right to think that this is not, overall, a very good movie. But it is an important one.

For which NYT columnist Ross Douthat offered this bit of snark: “It’s a mediocre movie, but I didn’t understand how important mediocre movies are to the Cause.”

…which seems to miss the mark a bit.

The key to understanding why mediocre movies might be “important to the cause” goes back to Lowry’s column: He’s right! Elektra was a lousy movie that did lousy business. And what happened? Despite the flowering of the superhero genre over the last decade, nobody’s seen fit to make a major female superhero movie again until about now.

When superhero movies about white guys do badly, nobody puts that on their white guyness. Ryan Reynolds survived the critical failure of Wolverine and the failure failure of Green Lantern before finally striking gold with Deadpool. Now, it seems, he’s set for life. Short story: White guys don’t have to worry about mediocrity being a major setback.

Meanwhile, the studios offered up three major women-centered superhero movies over the course of 30 years, they flopped, and based on that — instead of the fact that the movies just sucked — the dudes-that-be decided there wasn’t an audience for women-centered superhero movies. They even decided women couldn’t be the villains.

Wonder Woman, it seems, proves that’s wrong.

So the response to Lowry is: When women are getting as many of these opportunities as men, maybe we’ll be able to dial the conversation back a bit. Until then, the process is natural.

And the response to Douthat is: Maybe you shouldn’t sneer at people taking seriously something you don’t have to take seriously because it will never be a problem getting a superhero movie made about people who look like you.

And the response to Edelstein is … well, I kind of wish he hadn’t written his response at all. Critics are inundated with fanboy — a term I used advisedly — criticism whenever they diss a superhero movie, and maybe he should’ve just shrugged it off. Today’s piece was too defensive to come across well, and certainly didn’t appear to be as considered as most of his film criticism usually is.

But read those last sentences again. He doesn’t owe Wonder Woman, the movie, undue respect if the movie hasn’t earned it. Indeed, he says that his review of the flick — that it’s “not … a very good movie” — stands. He can acknowledge that it’s an “important” movie, though — a judgment that belongs to a slightly wider conversation than the “thumbs up-thumbs down” movie review might permit. Did he do wrong with the initial review? I don’t think so. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t miss out on something.

Underlying all this (I think) is this sense, among white dudes, that their experience is the median, and that the white dude consensus about, well, anything is the conventional wisdom — maybe even objective truth — about a thing. But we all bring ourselves, our lives into the movie theater with us, and those perspectives affect how we see the movie. To say a movie is “important” without calling it good is a way of beginning to acknowledge those other perspectives.

It’s worth noting that the front page of Rotten Tomatoes “Wonder Woman” page features 20 reviews of the movie — and just five of them are women. The second page? Twenty more reviews, just one identifiable woman.

Think that influences our perspective, even a tiny bit?

I’m not sure that I’m articulating exactly what I want to say here. (One friend allowed I might be suffering from kneejerk leftism on this matter.) It just seems to me that white dudes — I am one — are often like fish in the ocean: They swim in a culture that often facilitates their desires. That’s not a culture that requires them to consider the feminist politics of a piece of art, or one that makes them grapple with why a movie might be important without necessarily appealing to them.

Apparently, it’s very upsetting when something comes along to challenge that.

Going to see the movie this weekend!

Cheers,

Joel

A Brief List of Slavery-Deniers

Dear Joel,

Robert Curry’s view of American history is tragically narrow. For those who haven’t read the short piece that you cited last week, Curry wonders why Obama was so quick to recognize the importance of Islam in the US when it was Christianity that this nation was all about.

Of course, that argument, as you note, ignores the many Muslims who were forcibly brought to the colonies and later the United States as the victims of slavery. It’s like Curry seems to think that the nation was built by Episcopalians and Puritans, not by the actual work of enslaved Africans and their descendants.

Curry ignores that fact that slavery–which brought not only Islam but also food and music derived from Africa–was a key part of the founding of the nation, including in the most religious of places. Curry exalts George Whitfield as “the first truly American public figure, equally famous in every colony,” but Whitfield was also an advocate of the expansion of slavery and profited from that national sin. Would Whitfield have been preaching to crowds of 10,000 if he had challenged slavery rather than supported it? What would his ministry have looked like had he not been pulling in income from the theft of human beings from Africa?

Curry isn’t alone in erasing slaves (and their religions) from American history. Take the plantation tour of your choice; you’re probably going to learn about hoop skirts and architecture, but you may have to ask about slavery and the people whose labor allowed whites the profit to build those grand houses. If you ask, you may be rebuffed by an embarrassed tour guide. Embarrass them further by asking why they don’t know this part of the place’s history.

Image result for plantation wedding

Above, a white couple marries at Nottoway Plantation, which bills itself as “the largest antebellum mansion.” Guests can enjoy the property built and maintained by people who could legally be killed by white supremacists. How romantic! 

Or attend Kappa Alpha’s “Old South” themed frat party. Check them out while they parade in front of a black sorority.

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Above, members of a white Greek organization pose for photos of themselves dressed up like slave owners. Universities trying to defend them say that they don’t “these young folks were in any way trying to be racist” but simply didn’t understand “the broader implications of what they were doing.”

Or read MacGraw-Hill’s US history textbook to see white sins erased as the people they bought and sold are called “workers.”

Or listen to Ben Carson call those who were stolen from their homes, shipped in inhumane conditions across the sea, and sold for profit called “immigrants“–as if they were seeking a better life, not being treated as chattel.

So, while it’s obvious to anyone who has ever thought about it that slavery–and therefore Islam–is central to US history, we need to keep reminding folks of that.

Rebecca

HOW do you love Trump supporters?

Dear Joel,

It’s funny when our faith comes back to us in surprising ways, huh? The desire to be empathetic, compassionate, and responsible to others is what drew me to Mennonites in the first place, and my decision to place myself into accountable relationships with Mennonites helped me develop this kind of thinking as a discipline. After decades of this spiritual endeavor, that kind of thinking should be kicking in when I’m most frustrated with others–it’s times likes these that I’ve been training for. So I’m very encouraged (and I hope other readers are too) to see you coming down on the side of loving Trump supporters.

But how? That’s the harder part for me. I find it almost easier to love those who embrace Trump for his racism than for me to love those who embrace him despite his racism. The first–white nationalists, white supremacists, the alt-right–seem to me to be more honest and thus easier to speak to and about because you know what their issues are. Loving them means working with them to find pathways out of hate (from tattoo removal to legal help) and to keep pressure on them to leave, which can include a range of strategies to make life in a hate group uncomfortable for them.

But for those who ignore, downplay, or excuse Trump’s bigotry–toward women, toward immigrants, toward Muslims, toward people of color–and especially for those who call themselves Christians, love is more of a challenge.

It’s not my usual style here at 606 to get into scripture, but I want to share some thinking I’ve been doing on Jude that has helped me. It may help others, too–and I think the model espoused in Jude can be useful to non-Christians and non-believers, too.

But, first, three caveats:

First, I think that Christians are obligated to love everyone. I think this is true for all Christians, even those who don’t agree on anything else. I don’t think you have to believe that God loves everyone. (I tend to default this belief. I suppose that God loves even Donald Trump, though I have no idea why. And I see no evidence in Trump’s life that God loves him.) But if you’re a Christian, you’ve been told explicitly by Jesus your neighbors and your enemies.

But I don’t place the same burden for loving enemies on non-Christians, not because Christians hold the patent on loving enemies but simply because I’m not going to tell non-Christians to live by a Christian standard.

A second caveat: Especially among Mennonites, it’s easy to turn turning the other cheek and loving your enemies into competition and oppression. The mandate to forgive is used to keep women in abusive marriages, children into abusive relationships with parents, and perpetrators of sexual violence in the church out of jail. That’s not how forgiveness works.  We aren’t in a competition to see who can endure the worse abuse and then forgive for it. Let’s not cheapen forgiveness like that or make it pornographic by gawking at those who exercise it in the most trying of circumstances.

And a third caveat: Jude talks about sin and divides sinners into types, which might sound a little judgmental to some folks. I don’t think that is Jude’s purpose. I think Jude shows us that we can use different strategies to love people who are committed to their sins to a greater and lesser degree. And to be clear: I think supporting Donald Trump is an act of violence against our world’s most vulnerable people and is thus a sin, and because Trump has such power, it is a sin against most of the world’s population. In terms of reading Jude, we might read the words violence the vulnerable or racism/sexism/ nativism/ableism/Islamophobia  when we see the word “sin.”

So, on to the book of Jude:

It’s one of my least favorite books of the Christian New Testament. It’s short and direct, with lots of fire and brimstone, and it’s been used against LGBT Christians. You don’t hear many sermons out of it not only because there’s not much there (25 verses total) but because it’s kind of negative. But I find it also very helpful in laying out some ways of loving those who are hard to love. You can read the whole text in under 3 minutes here.

Jude is writing to Christians and telling them how to deal with those who call themselves Christians but who are not acting like it. The point, though, isn’t about what behaviors will get you in trouble but a warning against a kind of spirit or character: exploitative, duplicitous, deceitful. I don’t believe that the Bible predicts specific political leaders today, but, boy…

Image result for trump as satan

Is Trump Satan? Prolly not, though you can find YouTube videos arguing yes. Are Trump supporters complicit in the evil he is producing in the world? Yes. [Above, an image of Donald Trump with devil horns, a tail, and a pitchfork.]

Jude warns against those who claim to be Christians and yet

  • “pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness” (excuse away exploitative behavior on the grounds that “God forgives so I can do what I want”)
  • revile whatever they do not understand
  • “grumblers, malcontents, following their own passions, loud-mouthed boasters, flattering people to gain advantage” (See, any speech given by Donald Trump. If you’re not sure where to start, try this one, given to the Faith and Freedom Conference this past fall.)
  • set up divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit [love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control]” (See Donald Trump’s Twitter feed.)

Most of Jude is spent warning about these people. We need the warning because it’s not always obvious that a person has this kind of spirit. They may be charming, funny, or charismatic at first. And we shouldn’t confuse them for people who simply get on our nerves, challenge us, or push the boundaries of a group but do so out of love and respect. It’s too easy to accuse people we simply don’t like or who hold different (but carefully discerned) theological opinions of being “false prophets” or “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” The point of Jude (in the reading I give it here) isn’t to coerce theological conformity among believers but to care for the community by helping us recognize when someone is heading toward or fully engaged in sin (racism, sexism, violence toward the vulnerable, exploitation of the powerless, etc.) and giving us advice on how to bring them away from sin so that they can be part of a healthy community and can know God’s love better.

It’s not until verse 20 that Jude starts to answer the question of how we are to love them.

First, Jude tells Christians who are dealing with those who claim faith but aren’t acting in accordance with it to practice spiritual self-care: Be strong in our own faith, which means praying, centering ourselves in God’s love, and being patient. When your own faith is strong, lazy faith isn’t appealing. 

Then Jude gives us three strategies, one for each of three different kinds of people we may struggle to love: those who are flirting with sin, those who have just begun to succumb to it, and those who are stuck there. 

  1. For those who have doubt that their faith prohibits violence against the vulnerable, convince them (v. 22). Different translations of the passage tell us to “have mercy” or “have compassion” on these people. The implication is that we should be compassionate with those who have found their faith swayed by false teachers–including those who marry religion and political power. These people may want to be faithful, but a lazy faith is appealing, and so we should meet them where they are. Listen to their doubts, talk with them, and provide whatever it is that they need to reject sin and embrace the work of love. In practical terms, this means taking the concerns of Trump supporters seriously even if they are not valid as a means of meeting them where they are.
  2. “Save some, by snatching them out of the fire” (v. 23). The image here is of something that’s just been thrown into the fire but that can still be saved, if you are quick and willing to stick your hand in to retrieve it. The Trump campaign didn’t merely reveal racism, sexism, nativism, and a gross love of power in American Christianity; it also created those sins in some people, convincing believers who may have been wary about caesaraopapism–the combining of church and state–that Trump could be used by God to give them political power. And though they have been primed over the last 30 years to believe that a messiah was coming in the form of a Republican president, some of them can be moved. Engaging with them can be risky because they don’t have doubts: they are convinced. So you have to be standing on firm spiritual ground to do this work so that they don’t pull you into the fire with them. The language here (“snatching”) suggests urgency and direct action, not the sometimes circuitous, patient method of “convincing.”
  3. And, finally, “on some have mercy with fear, hating even the garment spotted by the flesh.” This verse employs the metaphor of contagion: just like you shouldn’t touch the clothing of an ill person in order to keep yourself healthy, you shouldn’t get too spiritually close to those committed to sin, those who are die-hard believers that the sins of bigotry aren’t sins at all but strengths. We can love these people too, but we have to hate their ideas. We can’t tolerate their sin while we convince them to leave it; we have to be as firm in our opposition to their bigotry as we are in our love for the individual.

This model may not work in every case, and it could be that not all Christians can engage it in all cases, and certainly other models are also available. You might be able to love people who are stuck in some kinds of sins but not in others because of some circumstance in your own life; maybe you can work with men who have been violent to women and I can’t or I can work with ableist haters and you can’t. You may be able to convince people who I couldn’t talk to–or who wouldn’t listen to me if I spoke. I may be able to “snatch” some “out of the fire” who you are not equipped to work with, and maybe you can confront some people who I couldn’t even approach. But the overall message is clear: Christians, collectively, must address the sins of those who also call themselves Christians, out of love for each other and out of hatred for oppression for the vulnerable. Jude suggests we may do so in conversation or confrontation, depending on the situation.

And you and I (and I suspect, many of our readers) are in an especially strong position to do so because we are white people who can speak to white people in ways that they can hear.

A final thought:

Jude can be harsh, but his advice isn’t to shun people or break off relationships. At the start of the passage, he warns that for those who are committed to sin, their “condemnation was written about long ago”–that is, that it has always been the case that our sins have consequences. (Here I don’t mean damnation to hell. I mean that 150 years after the end of great sin of slavery, we live with the the terrible consequences of that sin.) But he doesn’t discard these people. Instead, he tells us to maintain a relationship with them in order to bring them out of sin–this is showing “mercy” and “compassion.” We should remember that unless we center ourselves in God’s love, we, too, could go wandering off that direction. White people especially have to be committed to not take the easy path of white supremacy, which assures us that our undeserved power is, in fact, what we are entitled to.

 

Image result for waterless clouds

Above, an image of cracked ground, with waterless clouds above. Jude calls those who call themselves Christians and yet who exploit others “clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted—twice dead.”

How Minorities Get Written Out of American History

Dear Rebecca:
Robert Curry, writing at The Claremont Review (a sort of righty version of the New York Review of Books) takes aim at those sad tropes of political correctness:

In his 2009 speech in Cairo, Barack Obama famously declared that “Islam has always been a part of America’s story.” Yet no Founder was a Muslim, and it is generally agreed that the first mosque in America was a tiny one in rural North Dakota, started in 1929. How then are we to understand Obama’s claim?

How indeed? Well, Curry says, Thomas Jefferson waged war against piracy, and many pirates were Muslim, thus: “In this sense, then, Islam can be said to have been a part of America’s story from the beginning: it defined an enemy of the new nation, forcing America to summon the capacity to govern and defend itself.”

(Mansplain voice.) Well, actually...

Muslims arrived here before the founding of the United States — not just a few, but thousands.

They have been largely overlooked because they were not free to practice their faith. They were not free themselves and so they were for the most part unable to leave records of their beliefs. They left just enough to confirm that Islam in America is not an immigrant religion lately making itself known, but a tradition with deep roots here, despite being among the most suppressed in the nation’s history.

The story of Islam in early America is not merely one of isolated individuals. An estimated 20 percent of enslaved Africans were Muslims, and many sought to recreate the communities they had known.

So. Do slaves count as part of the American story? I’l go ahead and say yes.

Jesus Wants Me to Love Donald Trump (Or: What’s So Funny About Peace, Love, and Understanding?)

Dear Rebecca:

Wait. Wait a minute. Gotta finish listening to this Elvis Costello track.

OK. Where were we?

Oh, yeah. It turns out that there’s going to be plenty of room on my “I hate Trumpism, but I’m going to love Trumpistas” bandwagon. As in: I’m possibly the only one on it.

That’s ok. I didn’t expect anybody to embrace it, really, and some of the objections are really, really good. What the last few days have made me realize is this: The advent of Donald Trump has made me embrace the Mennonite aspects of my personality much more than I’d realized. I like to think of myself as an agnostic, but the wisdom I’m seeking — and appeal to — has its roots in pacifist-Christian traditions that find their fullest expression among Mennonites, Quakers and other so-called “peace churches.” There’s a contradiction there for me, no doubt. It’s not going to be resolved today.

It also means that the stuff I’m writing here might be of limited use to a general audience. So.

Still, I want to talk about a couple of issues that were raised in response to my piece this week, if only to be more clear.

How can you talk about being friends with people who are clearly bad? There are a few variations on this theme, and I don’t mean to oversimplify it here, only to cover the broadest ground.

So let’s talk about Martin Luther King Jr.

I acknowledged in the last piece that King, in the 21st century, is kind of problematic. Lots of people whose commitment to racial equality seems, er, less than stout, appeal to his example regularly, sometimes to mean things he probably didn’t mean. Some of those people prefer to see black folks embrace nonviolence because that means they’re not going to face the armed rebellion they so surely deserve.

Still, I’m kind of surprised that some folks these days seem to dismiss his example so easily. When I talked about King’s example with an online friend this week, her response was: “He got shot.”

Well. Yeah. So did Gandhi, from whom King borrowed a lot of his approach. Their deaths were tragic, and I don’t mean to treat them lightly here.

But it’s also clear to me that Gandhi and King led movements that created unprecedented breakthroughs in their respective societies. Gandhi used nonviolence to help the Indian people achieve self-determination; it’s thanks to the movement King led that the laws evolved to guarantee the right of black people to go to vote, go shopping, and get an education like their white peers.

What they did worked. Did it produce 100 percent victories? No. Such victories are rare. But their societies were transformed. That’s a big deal. Not to put too fine a point on it: What have you accomplished for justice lately? (I’m speaking of a general “you,” Rebecca, not you you.)

What both men sought was justice and reconciliation.

King:

Love is creative and redemptive. Love builds up and unites; hate tears down and destroys. The aftermath of the ‘fight with fire’ method which you suggest is bitterness and chaos, the aftermath of the love method is reconciliation and creation of the beloved community. Physical force can repress, restrain, coerce, destroy, but it cannot create and organize anything permanent; only love can do that. Yes, love—which means understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill, even for one’s enemies—is the solution to the race problem.

Gandhi:

My joy was boundless. I had learnt the true practice of law. I had learnt to find out the better side of human nature and to enter men’s hearts. I realized the true function of a lawyer was to unite parties riven asunder. The lesson was so indelibly burnt into me that a large part of my time during the twenty years of my practice as a lawyer was occupied in bringing about private compromises of hundreds of cases. I lost nothing thereby – not even money, certainly not my soul.

The intertwining of justice and reconciliation was important to both men. I’m not sure why we find it so easy to ignore, or even dismiss, their examples.

Which reminds me of a point I really, really want to emphasize:

When I say “justice and reconciliation are intertwined,” it is not to diminish the role of justice. If I suggest that justice requires reconciliation, then the opposite is also true: Reconciliation requires justice. That means true friendship won’t be achieved until justice is. Seeking reconciliation isn’t about being namby-pamby in the pursuit of justice, but rather recognizing that reconciliation — while a good unto itself — is probably necessary to cement the gains that justice makes. The best example of this? South Africa’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission. 

I’ve got some more thoughts about what that means, but maybe that’s for another post.

Wait. One other thought:

Does this mean I have to love Trump, too?

Short answer, yes. Kind of. Ugh. Longer answer: It’s complicated.

This conclusion makes me itch, frankly. But if I’m seeking wisdom from the Mennonite tradition, then I Timothy 2 probably bears some contemplating:

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior…”

So does Matthew 5:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, loveyour enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven

(Aside: This is why I’m skeptical of Christianity as tribalism. Because this is the opposite of tribalism, and what’s more, this shit is really, really, really fucking hard to do.)

Now: My own inclination is to make some distinctions. When I say I’m going to love Donald Trump supporters, dammit, it’s partly because they’re not Donald Trump. Best I can tell — and I don’t know his heart — he does awful things without remorse and for entirely base motives. The people who voted for him? Somewhat more complicated than that. I’m more complicated than that. Recognizing my own humanity forces me to recognize theirs, which forces me in turn to offer a bit of grace.

(True story: I cut off contact with a high school friend who, I felt, made racist jokes about Obama. When my mom died, though, he organized a dinner of guys from my graduating class upon my return to my hometown. It was an act of grace from an unexpected source. And I hate the racism I still perceive in this guy. But I also see where he’s trying to be better than what he is. So what’s my duty here?)

(This stuff is hard.)

Longer story short: Donald is responsible for his own actions more than his supporters are, though they bear some responsibility. If I get around to reconciling with him — and hoo boy, justice will have to be involved there — it’ll be after justice and reconciliation have happened, for me, at a broader, societal level.

Am I rambling? I’m rambling. Sorry. I’m thinking out loud. I’m almost finished with this post, swear.

Are we really in a civil war? I have a tremendously smart friend who objects to one of the core ideas of the last post: That we’re in, or headed for, a sort of civil war.

“Yeah, there’s a foul mood out there, and there are some paranoid people. And maybe it will get so bad that we’ll all freak out on each other. But I doubt it,” he writes. “I think we’re in an unpleasant period in our democracy. Not the first one.”

I hope he’s right. My own sense of things isn’t quite as hopeful as that, admittedly, and the people who I’m in contact are probably mostly in the top 15 percentile of Americans in terms of how much they care about politics. But politics isn’t everything, and maybe if I stepped back, I’d see more clearly that we’re a long way from that civil war.

Like I said, I hope he’s right.

All of this ruminating, which you’ve been so kind to read — or at least scan — probably isn’t a good guide to political organizing. It’s my own attempt to figure out how to live justly and humanely in an unjust and inhumane world. Your mileage may vary.

As I told one interlocutor:

I hate to get mystical about all this, but: On one level, I suspect that we’re each of us called to different roles in this. I think it’s clear the approach I want to take — one of resistance, and yet also fiercely resisting the ways polarization make us miserable — is one that few other people agree with, or can see a through-line to obtain the kind of justice they seek.

“You do you” is a bit of a cliche, but it’s also a mission statement. I’m taking the approach I take because I think we’re in a dehumanizing era – Trumpism is, I think, dehumanizing – and I want to resist that to the point that I don’t even give myself permission to dehumanize the Trumpistas. I’m not necessarily good at that, but I also think it’s a lot to ask of folks like you. This is my mission, not yours. That’s OK.

Maybe that’s enough for one day. Thanks for listening to me think.

Sincerely,
Joel

Dennis Prager’s Civil War (Or: Why I’m Going to Keep on Loving Donald Trump Supporters, Dammit)

Rebecca:

I’ve mentioned a few conservatives who intrigue me because of their willingness to think in unorthodox ways. Dennis Prager, on the other hand, is a conservative who intrigues me because he is so relentlessly orthodox, so consumed by his contempt for liberals, that I know I’ll never find common ground with him. On anything, possibly. But smart conservatives I know seem to dig him, so I pay (sporadic) attention, knowing he possibly is the manifestation of the Conservative Id.

Here’s a passage from his latest, explaining why he thinks some conservatives still aren’t on the side of President Trump:

The first and, by far, the greatest reason is this: They do not believe that America is engaged in a civil war, with the survival of America as we know it at stake.

While they strongly differ with the left, they do not regard the left-right battle as an existential battle for preserving our nation. On the other hand, I, and other conservative Trump supporters, do.

Oh dear.

Now. There was some conservative pushback against this piece — but not much against the “Civil War” contention. To be honest, I think a lot of folks on the left would agree that we’re in a kill-or-be-killed — maybe metaphorical, maybe not — battle over what makes being “American.”

So I’ve been thinking a lot lately about reconciliation, because I think we Americans are going to need a healthy dose of it sometime soon if we’re going to continue down the path of being a single nation. (I don’t think that outcome is guaranteed, frankly: Just because we’re currently and have been one nation for a long time doesn’t mean that state of affairs is guaranteed for the future. And who knows? Maybe a division would be for the best. But I digress….)

Specifically, I’ve been wondering how to advocate for the things I think are good, oppose the things I think are bad, yet still lay the groundwork for peaceful coexistence with neighbors who think differently than I do.

Is that even possible?

We’ve talked a bit about Nazi punching lately, and one concern I haven’t really expressed about the whole thing is this: How do we decide who the Nazis are?

Don’t get me wrong: Richard Spencer is an avowed white supremacist. If you’re going to divide people into Nazi-Not a Nazi categories, he’s pretty easy to categorize.

But damn, it sure seems the labels for what defines a Nazi are pretty expansive these days, and on both sides. Google “trump hitler” and you get 33 million results. The first page of image results gets you this:

trump hitler

Conservatives do the same: I remember well when National Review’s John Derbyshire responded to a Senator Obama proposal — that college students do community service — with a blog post headlined “Arbeit Macht Frei.” You know: The message that welcomed Jews to the concentration camps. (Derbyshire was eventually forced to leave NRO because of his own racist posting: Despite his rhetoric against Obama, most people would probably toward placing Derb in the “Nazi” category.) Google “obama hitler” and you get a mere 18 million results. You can guess what the image results page looks like.

obama hitler

We can’t all be Nazis can we? Yet, we (and here I’m speaking of Americans, left and right) persist in seeing the other side as such — with the result that we naturally contemplate extreme behaviors in response. Like (say) punching strangers.

(One problem: The Nazis encompassed such a vast array of behaviors that it’s pretty easy to start to make comparisons: Ohmigod! They were democratically elected! They didn’t start off shepherding Jews into concentration camps — but by expelling and hassling and incarcerating disfavored ethnic groups. It’s easy enough to start to draw comparisons, but then: Most people, even on the left, agree that the United States is like other countries in that it has the right to secure its borders and regulate immigration to a degree. But once you accept that logic to any degree and act accordingly, the Nazi comparisons become pretty easy.)

(This is why a certain brand of libertarianism can be seductive in its clarity — the kind that seems to see nearly any government action as tyranny, which means any tradeoff is bad — but that’s for another time.)

If we all see each other as Nazis and we’re all willing to act accordingly, we cannot continue to live together. Because, eventually, we will kill each other.

If one of us is right about the other side being Nazis, that’s possibly even justified. If that’s the case, then yes, we’re in a Civil War, and there’s nothing to do but have it out.

But.

What if we’re all wrong? What if most of us aren’t Nazis? Or what if we’re not Nazis yet and can still be precluded from becoming so?

Perhaps we need to resist seeing each other in villainous terms. That’s not to say that there aren’t villains — it’s easy to go too far the other way, because there definitely are people who make evil choices for evil reasons, and there are the occasional sociopaths — but, maybe, there aren’t nearly as many as we tend to think there are. Maybe, for the sake of survival, we have to get comfortable with just a touch of ambiguity along those lines.

So. Maybe we on the left need to recognize that (say) many conservatives who are trying to repeal Obamacare aren’t motivated by hatred of the poor, but a genuine belief that a genuine free market might serve everybody better?

Or that not everybody who calls themself “pro-life” is trying to control women’s lives, but genuinely believe they’re preventing murder?

Or that people who favor immigration restrictions aren’t necessarily racist, but do genuinely worry about terrorism?

I don’t think the above stances are, ultimately, correct. And certainly, there are conservatives who have contempt for the poor, conservatives who want to keep women in their place, and conservatives who are acting out of racist motivations. (And, certainly, conservatives might do well to recognize that most liberals don’t want big government for its own sake, believe that real and important issues of female autonomy really are in play on the abortion issue, and genuinely believe immigration really did help build the country and continues to have benefits.)

But combining empathy — does my own life contain contradictions? — with logic suggests that the number of easily caricatured single-dimension villains in our life is smaller than we typically suspect. The other side isn’t necessarily evil, just … wrong. Mistaken. But mistaken because their ideas of a just society are a bit different than ours, not because they reject the idea of a just society.

And if that’s the case, maybe we should avoid the Civil War? It’s not mindless middle-of-the-roadism, is it, to say: “I think I’m right, but personal humility — I might be wrong sometimes! — and respect for my neighbor dictate that I listen to her, and even if we disagree, I don’t have to think she’s a horrible person?”

(Even as I write this, I become aware of my that I’m privileged — I’m a white guy with a degree and — from time to time — an audience for my ramblings, so the likelihood of me experiencing oppression is small, the number of villains in my universe is small. Maybe the problem isn’t that we all see each other as Nazis, but that we don’t — correctly! — see ourselves as Nazis when so many of us are closer to it than we admit. The banality, the routine of evil is what makes it so insidious after all, right? Cut to: Lots of black folks nodding furiously.)

Since the election, I’ve been thinking a lot about Martin Luther King Jr. In some ways, he makes an easy example: Those of us benefit from the status quo would prefer it if everybody setting out to oppose the status quo agreed to use peaceful methods and not threaten an actual armed uprising, even as we continue to glorify armed uprisings in the name of underdog causes we care about. We’re hypocrites, most of us.

Get away from that, though, and it’s good to remember that King sought both justice and reconciliation — saw them, in fact, as inextricable from each other:

Nonviolence seeks friendship and understanding with the opponent. Nonviolence does not seek to defeat the opponent. Nonviolence is directed against evil systems, forces, oppressive policies, unjust acts, but not against persons. Through reasoned compromise, both sides resolve the injustice with a plan of action.

Sounds easy. Isn’t.

Something that shapes me in all this: In 2011, I underwent a series of surgeries that saved my life from a severe attack of diverticulitis. During that period, people I thought I hated — people I had every right to hate — offered me support and comfort and grace. It was a revelatory experience, one that I’ve tried to keep in mind since.  I’m less inclined than ever to find an excuse not to love my neighbor — though I’m obviously imperfect on this front — and more inclined to *try* to offer grace where I least want to give it. I think that’s the way of MLK. I think that’s the way of Jesus. Religious inclinations aside, I suspect it has the virtue of being … virtuous.

I hope you’ll forgive the rambling, Rebecca. I want to to do the right things, oppose the bad ones, and work for reconciliation. Maybe that’s impossible. Maybe if we each and every one of us hold to what we think is true, the civil war is inevitable.

But I don’t think it is. I don’t want it to be. I think we can avert it. It will, however, take hard work, choice, and a generosity of spirit that probably doesn’t come naturally to us.

God help us,

Joel